Monthly Archives: July 2017

The abstract is “an argument, writ small”

By Madeline Walker

The word abstract is a bit confusing.  When I looked up this word in the dictionary, I found the first definition is for the adjective, to do with “thought rather than matter, or in theory rather than practice; not tangible or concrete.” Thus an abstract concept, such as love, good, or evil, has no physical referent. The noun definition is “a summary of or statement of the contents of a book.” When you write an abstract for an article, thesis, or conference, you are “abstracting” (a rarely used verb form of the word, meaning to extract or pull out) some key bits from the whole. Yet contrary to the adjectival meaning of the word (non-concrete), it’s a good idea not to be too “abstract” when writing your abstract! An abstract abstract is likely to be ineffective because your goal is to deliver a clear picture of your research in your reader’s mind, and abstract language won’t do that. When you have only a few words to say a great deal, you had better be as concrete as possible in order to deliver your purpose to the reader directly.

I am a big fan of Thomson and Kamler’s four-move abstract described in Detox Your Writing: Strategies for Doctoral Researchers (available as an e-book in our library). Their model works well for all types of abstracts, and it can also be used to kick-start your writing. Thomson and Kamler write that the abstract is not a summary—it’s actually an “argument, writ small,” and it must contain your central argument in abstracted form.  You might say, “Well mine is a computer science article—I don’t really have an argument.”  I imagine T & K would respond that any piece of academic writing can be abstracted into an argument. You are trying to persuade the reader that your computer science finding/development/algorithm contributes to the research/makes a difference in some way. And that’s an argument. Here are Thomson and Kamler’s moves; please refer to the chapter “Learning to argue” (pp. 83–106) in Detox Your Writing for more information and samples of ineffective/effective abstracts.

LOCATE: this means placing your paper in the context of the discipline community and the field in general. Larger issues and debates are named and potentially problematized. In naming the location, you are creating a warrant for your contribution and its significance, as well as informing an international community of its relevance outside of its specific place of origin.

FOCUS: this means identifying the particular questions, issues or kinds of problems that your paper will explore, examine and/or investigate.

REPORT: this means outlining the research, sample and/or method of analysis in order to assure readers that your paper is credible and trustworthy, as well as the major findings that are pertinent to the argument to be made.

ARGUE: this means opening out the specific argument through offering an analysis. This will move beyond description and may well include a theorisation in order to explain findings. It may offer speculations, but will always have a point of view and take a stance. It returns to the opening Locate in order to demonstrate the specific contribution that was promised at the outset. (Thomson & Kamler, 2016, p. 92)

The authors encourage you to keep writing and rewriting your abstract throughout the broader writing process; each time, you will  refine it further. Try preparing a draft abstract of your article/thesis, regardless of the stage you are at. You’ll be surprised at how it focuses your writing and cements your motivation.  I’ve had more than one student tell me it worked to get them writing again after a dry spell.

Call for graduate student blog post writers!

A huge thank you to all of our student writers so far this year: Kaveh Tagharobi, Russell Campbell, Kate Ehle, Marta Bashovski, Cindy Quan, Jonathan Faerber, and Arash Isapour.  Your writing resonated with so many of your fellow graduate students. Thank you for taking the time to craft wonderful posts and share your experience.

We need more student writers for the 2017/2018 academic year, so please consider writing for us.  We need students from different disciplines and backgrounds and at various stages of study to volunteer to write for the blog. Your topic can be anything related to academic communication and graduate students; see the guidelines here. If you feel uncertain that your writing skills are sufficient to the task, please make an appointment with me  I’ll be happy to coach you on how to improve your draft until we are both happy with it.  As Peter Elbow says, “Everybody can write.”

Additionally, we need some specific topics covered this year, and perhaps one of these attracts you:

  • The “thesis by publication” or article-based dissertation. This model, popular in the sciences and social sciences, requires that you write three or more “publishable” articles (plus weave them into a whole with intro/conclusion). Although the book-length dissertation is still with us, the article-based version is definitely a trend in our university, and I’d love somebody to write about it. Are you a student who is following this model or considering it?
  • Writing in different disciplines. Perhaps you are writing an interdisciplinary thesis, dissertation, or article and you need to negotiate with supervisors from various faculties. How’s that going for you? We would love to hear from you if you’ve had this experience or you have written in different disciplines (say, you did your MA or MSc in one area and are doing your PhD in a different one).  What have you learned about disciplinary differences in writing?
  • Communicating with your supervisor.  Okay, this may seem elementary, but some of us have struggled for hours to craft communication with supervisors or other professors.  EAL students unfamiliar with the Canadian university context may find this especially difficult. Would you like to write about this challenge and some strategies that have worked for you?

Don’t want to write, but want to read about something in particular? Please email me to suggest a specific blog post topic:

We are taking a break for August, and the next post will be published in mid-September. Happy summer everybody, and thank you for reading the blog.




Pictures tell stories: An interview with Dr. Thomas Darcie about writing for engineers

Dr. Thomas Darcie

By Madeline Walker

Dr. Thomas Darcie (also known as Ted) joined UVic in 2003 after a long career at Bell AT&T and is currently a Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He is known as a leader in the development of lightwave systems for analog applications in cable television and wireless systems.

One morning in early June, I  had the opportunity to meet with Ted in his office in the Engineering Office Wing. Dozens of articles—evidence of Ted’s productivity—were spread across his desk. A cool breeze entered the open window.

Ted has supervised many graduate students in Engineering over the years, and I wanted to hear his ideas about writing in his discipline.

“How is writing in Engineering different from writing for another disciplines?” I asked.

“In Engineering, you’re trying to get across a complicated idea as succinctly as possible. I think in other disciplines they tend to use more words to express things. Certainly when there is a lot of mathematics involved, you try to let the mathematics tell the story, and you’re writing words to support the mathematics.”

Ted and I talked about the kinds of challenges writing presents for his students. “I see challenges at every level of the writing process,” he said. “There’s the top level, the organizational structure of the story to be told. Then this breaks down to paragraphs—what is supposed to be in a paragraph and what separates paragraphs. Then there’s sentence structure, use of words, punctuation, syntax. I see challenges for writers at all these levels.”

“How do you help students face these challenges?” I wondered. “Do you work with them on their writing?”

“I do. We spend quite a lot of time cleaning up drafts. I mark-up drafts – I take a document and address all the levels at the same time. The first cut is the organization cut – what goes where. Then after the organization makes sense we break it down. It takes time, and in extreme cases I’ll work through several drafts with a student.”

I was curious about what Ted identifies as the biggest problem in graduate student writing. He used a metaphor to illustrate how students sometimes miss the point of writing: “People tend to want to write about what they spent their time doing whether or not that aligns with the story that needs to be told. A student might spend 80% of their time trying to polish something without breaking it, and they succeed. Then they spend 80% of their manuscript writing about the polishing, but what the reader wants to know is the outcome.” Ted’s example tweaked my memory; I’d seen corresponding situations in other disciplines, for example the data-driven thesis in the social sciences. A student might discuss her data for pages and pages without drawing any conclusions about it.

We moved from talking about problems to talking about successes. I asked Ted what characterizes the best engineering writing by students. “It’s well organized. Organization is key,” he answered. “In organized writing, the writer establishes a direct line between the introductory objective, the analysis, the results, and the meaning. The direct line is very important.”

I asked Ted to tell me more about the “direct line,” an intriguing phrase that reminded me of the “red thread” that some people refer to in argument-driven writing. “Well,” he said, “a technical manuscript is a concatenation of results, graphs, and equations, and you can tell the story with no words by lining up your graphs, figures, and equations in the right order. You can fill in the blanks between by joining those visuals. Visuals are telling the story, the words are just supporting the visuals. I badger my grad students to give me the story line in the visuals. Write in point form between the pictures, then expand each point into a paragraph. I’d much rather see a concatenation of 20 pictures telling a story than a concatenation of 20 paragraphs telling a story because I know which one would be better organized. You don’t need words to tell a story. Once the pictures are lined up, it’s easier to get the words right.”

The breeze from the open window lifts the top pages of the articles blanketing Ted’s desk. I thank him for his insights and go out into the bright day. I muse on disciplinary writing differences. My own love for art helps me know at a deep level that you can tell a story without words. I just hadn’t thought about how that idea can be applied in academic writing. I will now approach the engineering and math students I meet with this new perspective. For these disciplines, the word is often helpmate to the picture, and as Ted says, “once the pictures are lined up, it’s easier to get the words right.” Thank you Ted, for helping me to see writing in a new way.

An example of pictures telling stories
Credit: Smith, Jooshesh, Zhang, & Darcie. (2017). THz-TDS using a photoconductive free-space linear tapered slot antenna transmitter. Optics Express, 25(9). 10118-10125., p. 10120.